Story Excerpt

The Mercy of the Sandsea

by T. L. Huchu

 

The sandsea’s ever churning by the U’mtabi docks, crashing against the concrete barriers holding the waves at bay. Sounds like a rattle, infinite grains of pavalinite swishing and hissing. Panganai working the nightshift doesn’t hear it anymore. He tunes out and turns up his collar against the constant fine spray wafting through the air. Without the respirator he’s wearing, his lungs would soon be filled with cement. He knows; he’s seen men executed kneeling by the sandsea, gasping for breath as the fine sediment solidified in their lungs. Gets in the eyes too, hence the goggles he wears, but Panganai can’t do anything about the layers in his hair and on his clothes.

Looming over everything are the tankers that have sailed south upon the ultra-dunes driven by the marakacha midyear stream, which halves the travel time between the free trade port of U’mtabi and the industrial hubs of Karandamarombe, Singona, and Chiyerashava. The same stream quadruples the time taken to travel from the southern ports of Danamapenzi as the tankers burn energy battling the frictious dunes. Panganai was a marine and knows all about the vagaries of venturing upon the untamable sandsea. But he’s long lost his sea legs. Fled the north to find peace in U’mtabi where no one knows his name. It’s better that way.

Visibility is low. At dusk everything looks like shadows in the dust. Panganai’s military-grade optical enhancements flicker between en-norm and infrared allowing him to navigate between the stacked up containers on his rounds.

His boots crunch upon the debris-strewn sand. Feels like wading.

Panganai hears a sound amidst the ever-present hiss and tries to locate it. He can’t block out the background noise. Used to be able to hear a pin drop a hundred yards away and pinpoint the location. Damn his ZBX53 implant. The audio function’s failing. Pretty much all the tech inside of him is too since the manufacturer Kumbusani Defence Industries was blitzed and the planet put into special measures by the Changamire.

He reaches for his eeler. Ain’t nothing but a charged up nightstick with a single 100K volts packed for a single-use discharge. Men like Panganai ain’t allowed blasters within the thousand-light-year bubble of the Karanga Confederacy. Not even in a remote outpost like this. The irony isn’t lost on him since he used to be a defender of the very same interstellar polity. But the times have moved on. He’d rather not be doing this job, risking his neck against the surfers and skifferates he’s employed to keep away from the merchandise hauled here to connect with the merchant navy heading off-world. Not that he has any choice since the forfeiture of his pension after the war.

Amidst the noise comes the sound of footsteps shifting sand. It must be coming from the D7 near the luxsolar rig. Anticipating his approach, the ZBX53 auto moves Panganai into the shade of the containers. He stealths across, barely making a sound. “Barely,” because if it was still working right, he wouldn’t make any sound at all. He should feel the kick of nacxyline sharpening his physiology to keep up with the mech enhancements, but the port under his ribs hasn’t been filled in ages. Instead what he feels is pain and fear.

He grunts to bear it.

Something feels off. Panganai would rather let this one go, but stolen property gets docked from his wages, and he knows a couple of guards who’ll see out the rest of their lives in debt to the port. No one in his right senses would take this job. But Panganai doesn’t have options.

He glances left, in the alley between the containers.

If it was skiffirates, he’d have heard their engines. Surfers come in packs, loud and hollering, difficult to miss. Uneven footfall. They are nearer, enough for him to hear one leg is being dragged behind the other. Injury? Panganai grips his eeler tighter.

A figure emerges from the shadows, reaches a hand out toward Panganai, and the ZBX53 immediately moves him out of the line of sight. Automatic protocol response for blasters and projectile weapons. That’s why during the war the roaches started using shoulder mounted cannons, which killed a lot of his comrades till they wised up and got upgrades to neutralize the innovation. But the figure’s hands are empty, shoulder cannonless as it staggers toward him.

If Panganai had had a blaster he’d have fired already, the ZBX53 would have done it for him, but with nothing but the eeler, he waits for hand-to-hand engagement.

“That’s far enough,” he says. “Mira ipapo.”

The figure staggers on and drops to its knees a few feet in front of him. Raspy breathing. Panganai notices the pipe in the respirator unit has holes in it. This guy’s been inhaling cement. The filtration unit on his chest seems to be working, which helps, but with the pipe compromised like that, the situation’s still pretty bad. Panganai reaches into his side pocket and grabs emergency tape.

“You try anything and I’ll fry your arse,” he says, approaching.

He pushes the man’s head back and starts working to tape up the pipe.  A few loops is all it takes.

The man’s breathing improves.

That’s when Panganai takes a look into the man’s eyes. Even with the respirator on, goggles and a hoodie, he’d know that telescopic-dianocular fitting anywhere. Only one man in the Machinda-22 Unit had those fitted. Best goddamn sniper in the Galaxy.

“Tengende? Is that you?” Panganai says, gasping.

His comrade’s slashed all over. Already the dust is settling into the gaping wounds underneath which the glint of meta-alloy overlaying bone can be seen. Sand marines are the toughest bastards ever synced, but Tengende looks like he’s been through a grater. Panganai pulls him up to his feet. He’s gonna have to sling him over his shoulder and carry him to any one of the tankers with a robodoc on board.

Tengende winces.

“Comrade, they’re coming for us,” he says.

“What do you mean? Who?” Panganai rapidscans multiple wavelengths and comes out blank. Heightens audio—nothing.

*   *   *

Something slowly approaching disturbs the flow of dust in the narrow alleyway. When Panganai blinks, the ZBX53 remodulates, filling out the outlines, creating a pseudo impression of a black humanoid figure against the red-spectrum sight. The rendering keeps shifting, the outlines imprecise. More shadow than man. The only question on Panganai’s mind is whether or not it is killable. Sand marines divide the world into two, things they can kill and things they’d die trying to kill.

Panganai pushes his comrade behind him, placing himself between him and the armored assassin despite the protestations of the ZBX53, which has already calculated which of them is more likely to survive. Machinda-22 were not averse to leaving injured comrades behind. Then they were expected to self-terminate or their 53s would do it for them. Everyone who signed up knew the rule, because they were the crew that operated behind enemy lines.

“Go and hide,” Panganai says, shoving Tengende to prod him along, but his comrade staggers to lean against a container. He changes tack and addresses the assassin, “This is a restricted area, identify yourself.”

It uncloaks slowly, like a flower blossoming, the photon suppression array peeling back to reveal it in the fading light of the red dwarf.

Panganai’s implant tells him the specs of the armor he is seeing can’t be identified. Must be something new, but with his last update over thirty-years ago, there’s a lot the ZBX53 can no longer spy. A spectrographic scan fails to identify the material it’s made of, density, and, crucially, weak points, usually in the jointing. The armor moves flexibly like cloth.

“Zenai M. Tanaka—7, Furedhiya Makinya—88, Anatoniya Pumuko—30, Mangarita Sembisai—19, Togara Siwela Muteneri—2, Lumatiya Isaka Pompi—14, Gambare Tumbare—25, Ediyeta Rwakasungirwa—25 . . . ”

“What does that mean?” Panganai asks.

“. . . Onisimo Jimu—62, Bhiridha Bani Musonza—22, Hanganwa Makeyi—21 . . . ”

“Who are they?”

Tengende groans, saying something Panganai can’t make out as the armored warrior approaches.

The ZBX53 urges “retreat-reevaluate-regroup,” but Panganai raises his nightstick and strikes the armor hard, landing clean with a dull thud as if he’s hit a bag of sand; the impact absorbed with neither dent nor jarring in Panganai’s arm. All the force he’s used has been absorbed. He pushes the trigger and discharges 100K volts, but the discharge doesn’t go off. He tries again—same result. The damned thing doesn’t conduct electricity.

“... Netsayi Govere—15, Chakona Chakona—15, Wangureya Pfebve—15, Eriya Pfebve—18, Makanaka Pfebve 21, Unotsvireyi Manetsa Pfebve—49 . . . ” It continues reciting, striking Panganai in the chest, throwing him in the air. He lands ten feet away, clutching the right side. It was a sledgehammer blow. He feels it despite the meta-alloy protecting his ribs and endures it, for his medi doesn’t have analgesics either.

This is different from fighting the rebels with their improvised tech, Panganai admits to himself, getting up from the dirt.

His implant flashes dire warnings. Estimates a 7 percent chance of winning this confrontation with his current toolset as the armored assassin approaches Tengende who is slumped against the container.

“Run, comrade,” Tengende breathlessly whispers.

“I’m not leaving you,” Panganai says. He tries to take a step forward to engage his opponent again, but the ZBX53 overrides and locks his joints. It’s like fighting an invisible barrier. Try as he may with all his will and might, Panganai can’t go forward. He strains against the implant, arguing with it, bargaining, threatening, but the self-preservation protocol, the same one that’s stopped him committing suicide over the last thirty years, takes primacy, especially when it has already calculated Tengende’s odds of survival are infinitesimal. If only he’d had a Mandaza 12mm, he’d have blasted this thing back to whatever hell it came from.

A dust devil sways like a belly dancer approaching from the far end of the alleyway.

“What do you want?” Panganai asks.

A beam of light resembling a smile passes across the face of the armored assassin casually walking toward Tengende. It never stops the litany, that recitation of strange nouns and numbers as if they are an answer. Then it grabs Tengende, turns him round to face Panganai, kicks the back of his legs and forces him to kneel. A hand reaches over to casually pull off Tengende’s respirator.

“Please, don’t do this,” Panganai says. A sand marine never begs.

There is something in the slow, deliberate choice of execution that makes it personal. If this person, this thing, only wanted to kill Tengende, a blast would be quick and humane. No, this is personal. It wants to prolong the process. A lone tear trickles down Panganai’s left eye and is cupped in his goggles as he watches his comrade take in dust.

“... Philani Mbongolo—77, Wineti Tungamirai—23, Pauro Aramu Mengiste—3, Hazvinei Muchineripi—61 . . . ”

The litany continues even as Tengende desperately gasps, his lungs filling with dust, the dust meeting the fluids therein, hardening to cement until the gasps get shallower and shallower for the muscles in his chest can’t expand any longer. The armored assassin shoves Tengende onto the sand-covered catlinite.

Before Panganai even registers it, the ZBX53 takes executive action, diverting available fuel to his legs. He turns and starts to run away. The only way he can get back some semblance of control is by cooperating, and so he chooses to veer in front of the oncoming lifter. The driver blares his horn angrily as Panganai vaults over it running to the west side of the port.

He can sense with neither sound nor sight that he is being stalked, but he knows this port like home, and he takes a chance tearing through the workshop, hoping the intruder might set off an alarm among the night shift workers, but quickly realizes that the cloaked figure might look to them like a freak atmospheric disturbance.

Panganai runs fast for an old man in his fifties, faster than a natural elite sprinter, still much slower than he was when he first got enhanced in his teens when the army needed bodies and he answered the call. He sends a command to the respirator to up the O2 volume flowing to his lungs. The ZBX53 scans via his optics for the disturbances that might indicate his pursuer’s location. Panganai knows his best chance is to head over to the tankers anchored here, rocking back and forth, buffeted by the currents. Their metal hulls moan ominously, holding out against the forces they float upon. At least there he can find refuge, hiding out until the morning. He flees, cutting across the crane tracks, nearly tripping as he heads for the Mwenemutapa II, the E-class vessel nearest to him.

“. . . Ruvheneko Bhiriyati—18, Sungano Razaro Mhute—39, Yakopo Khumalo—1, Eriza Simbarashe Kunaka—92, Nobeti Unendoro—22 . . . ”

The litany of names sounds out from in front of Panganai, and he skids to halt. It comes loud and clear against the churning noise of sand abrading the metal hulls. The armored assassin strolls casually through the night as though it has all the time in the Confederacy.

Panganai is so close to the Mwenemutapa, but he can’t make his way through that. The ZBX53 rates this a 2 percent chance of success. The odds have slipped further since this thing is clearly faster than him.

Options.

The churn grows louder. His heart beats out of his chest. When he was a sand marine, Panganai knew no fear; neurochemical blockers helped with that. But he feels it now like he’s never before in his life and so between the devil and the sandsea, he chooses the latter. At least then it will be his choice, because this is his life. The ZBX53 allows it, weighing between a 2% chance and a roll of the dice. He draws near the concrete wall, looks down into the frothing sand casting up the spray of dust that mists this entire place. Panganai takes a deep breath and, in desperation, gives himself up to the mercy of the sea.

*   *   *

Sand marines are taught to stay on the vessel at all times until they make terra firma. The sandsea’s currents are ungovernable, and anyone swallowed therein is considered irretrievable. You can’t see them once they are sunken below the fine grains. Panganai counts on this to help him evade his enemy. But under the surface lie hidden other things one dares never encounter: sand sharks, gun’ongos, zvisveto, thirsty creatures seeking moist flesh. The currents drag Panganai deeper below where the sheer pressure makes it hard to breathe. He is squeezed. Compressed. Constricted.

All around him the constant churn, sounds he feels, travel through his entire body, the violence of the sandsea from its immeasurable, unfathomable depths. He gives himself to it.

Bleakness.

Blackness.

How can you swim when you can’t see where you’re going?

In the sandsea, you give yourself up to the currents, let them carry you where they will. The military training Panganai received so long ago kicks in, instinct backed by implant. If you’re lucky enough to be kept on the subsurface swirl, you can coast along and hope not to get eaten or die of thirst before you make landfall. Unless you’re unlucky enough to hit a gyre, this is within the realm of possibility. He knows that if he’s dragged under, the compressive force alone will kill him. There are numerous other caveats too. Most important is your gear, because the experience is like swimming in sandpaper. The abrasive force of the moving particles is relentless and would grind a naked man to dust in hours. A marine in armor has a better chance. Panganai in pseudo-leather, great for surface winds, less so in the sandsea, can count on a fraction of  that.

It’s critical he follows the flow. This minimizes abrasion.

He’s an old man paying for the sins he committed as a boy.

This he knows now.

Those names the armored assassin recited in its endless litany mean nothing to him now, but they meant everything to the boy he was a long time ago. A boy playing warrior. Wrong names with the wrong accents.

So many.

Panganai fights to breathe as he’s tossed in the churn, tucking in for the ride, hoping a riptide doesn’t drag him entirely. He’d never know it. Direction loses meaning here. The ZBX53 still maintains an idea of where’s where, but the figures coming to him shift rapidly till they cease to make sense. Panganai remembers comrades who fell overboard never to be recovered. Others walked the plank for insubordination and were never seen too. But he hopes this close to shore, that won’t be his fate.

Tengende murdered, here, in the very city they fled to in order to start a new life in a place where no one knew their names after the Machinda-22 Unit was dishonorably disbanded. The deaths the implants denied them, seekers of shelter from a savage past. What of the others? Scattered like chaff in the wind, the comrades afraid to ever congregate again and sing the battle songs of old as they so often did sailing the sandsea.

Something cold brushes against Panganai.

He closes his eyes and waits for death, but the creature swims past on its way. Panganai reckons it must be a saramende, those harmless creatures that live in the sandsea but lay their eggs on the coast. This gives him an idea, and he requests an override with his implant. Screw the training—he uncurls, exposing a larger surface area to the abrasive sand, but at least now he can follow the saramende, hoping it’s swimming for the coast, for in this season they too have migrated from the northern latitudes to these shores where they lay their eggs.

He swims and swims, feeling his leathers shredding in the angry crosscurrent. Still he follows the cool trail, hoping. If this doesn’t work, death will be a very painful. Already he feels grains poking in where the pseudo-leather suit has lost integrity. Sharp pain like paper cuts strike as he disobeys the law of the sandsea.

Unaware how far the coast is, Panganai struggles against the capricious currents. The same currents are harnessed to power U’mtabi via subsurface turbines.

He feels his left calf sliced.

The suit is compromised so quickly because it’s a secondhand one that’s coming to the end of its usefulness even in the atmosphere. But Panganai is committed. He battles the thousand cuts on his skin and feels grated by the time he emerges, bleeding, onto terra firma.

Shaking, he crawls out of the sandsea on all fours and weeps.

The saramende slithers away into the night.

 

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Copyright © 2022. The Mercy of the Sandsea by T. L. Huchu

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